As the fourth sport in North America’s Big Four, hockey must rely a lot on momentum when it comes to exposure in the U.S. Basketball lockout? Great for NHL momentum. Lockout ends? Bad for momentum. The Winter Classic is always a great showcase event (even if ratings were down this year) and the All-Star Game should at least hold some cache, even if it’s not the most compelling of competitions.
Which is why the lack of Alex Ovechkin this year is such a black mark.
The biggest healthy name in the sport said his heart wasn’t in it after being handed a three-game suspension and for some reason the league’s OK with this.
Sidney Crosby’s on the shelf, as is Jonathan Toews. Ovechkin isn’t putting up his normal stellar rate of points this season, but he is ratings gold and without the Washington Capitals captain, the All-Star Game festivities will feel a little bit empty this year.
The Russian dynamo is not the only one who asked to be excused from a weekend in Ottawa: Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne and Detroit’s Nick Lidstrom also begged off. And while Selanne and Lidstrom are surefire Hall of Famers once they retire, neither would have been the stars of the show, particularly at the skills competition on the Saturday night. That’s Ovie time.
When Montreal hosted the event in 2009, Ovechkin was front and center in the headlines (along with Tampa’s Vincent Lecavalier, who Montreal fans were desperate to see in his home province’s uniform). The Capitals left winger was in the midst of a feud with countryman and Pittsburgh Penguins rival Evgeni Malkin and the chippiness of the burgeoning battle was well known. Unbeknownst to the public, mutual friend Ilya Kovalchuk had brokered a peace agreement between Ovie and ‘Geno’ just before Saturday’s skills night. So when Ovechkin skated over to Malkin during the shootout competition, it seemed as if anything could happen. What no one predicted was that Malkin would act as Ovechkin’s cornerman, squirting Gatorade into his mouth and putting shades on the affable superstar, who also donned a fisherman’s hat adorned with Canadian flags before his last fantastic breakaway shot. In person, it was an amazing bit of showmanship – a plot twist worthy of the best WWE writing. It made the weekend.
Folks in Ottawa won’t be so lucky, however.
And where is commissioner Gary Bettman on this? I recognize there’s a lot of sabre-rattling going on right now between head office and the Players’ Association, but I think having the biggest personality in the NHL at an event purely put together for corporate and ratings purposes would be worth any potential grief.
When Ovechkin went all Superman on Zbynek Michalek, he put himself in a position to be suspended for the head shot. But that doesn’t mean he should get the weekend off, too. The NHL needs Ovie and Washington pays him enough to hang out in Ottawa for a couple days instead of Cabo San Lucas or Las Vegas.
I know it’s not Ovechkin’s fault Crosby is injured and Selanne and Lidstrom had already been excused – heck, maybe Tim Thomas’ Don’t-Tread-on-Me stance will provide all the fodder needed for the weekend anyway – but with the hockey world’s eyes collectively tuned into Canada’s capital, Washington’s favorite hockey player needs to be in on the festivities. Ovechkin isn’t putting up MVP numbers right now, but his personality is more rare than his puck prowess and the NHL needs that on display right now.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.